Wheaton’s move to fire Larycia Hawkins turning farce into a fiasco. Here are six questions that need to be asked

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Photo by hobvias sudoneighm via Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/striatic/2192192956/

Photo by hobvias sudoneighm via Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/striatic/2192192956/

Wheaton College’s move is raising more suspicions than providing answers. There are growing questions on whether the evangelical college is giving the professor fair and equal treatment.

Wheaton is seeking to terminate Larycia Hawins for comments she made on a Facebook post. Hawkins announced on Facebook that she was donning the hijab in solidarity with muslims. The college, however, balked, both with her solidarity and her statement that Muslims and Christians “worship the same God.”

Larycia Hawkins speaks on Jan. 6, 2016, at First United Methodist Church in Chicago. Religion News Service photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

On Saturday, TIME reported that provost Stan Jones initially found Larycia Hawkins “same God” comment to be “innocuous.” TIME also found evidence that Jones treated Larycia differently than others who said similar statements. Jones coached other faculty on what to say to avoid punishment, but he communicated with Hawkins by having another faculty member approach her.

These revelations raise serious doubts about the fairness of Wheaton’s actions. Wheaton College is a private evangelical college that has broad rights on hiring and firing, but it also grants tenured faculty protections as part of their contracts.

Tenure is not a guaranteed life-time appointment. It is first and foremost a right to due process and termination only “for cause.” Before a professor earns tenure, a college may (and should!) consider the professor’s entire record—teaching evaluations, assessments of publications, fit with the institutional mission, and relationship with colleagues are all fair game. Failure to meet the qualifications for tenure means an end to the professor’s career at the college. After tenure, however, the list of reasons for termination shrinks to a small list of essential, clearly articulated reasons.

Each college and university has its own list of what qualifies as cause. In most cases, cause is limited to a failure to do the job, unethical behavior, or gross incompetence. At religious colleges, there may be further requirements to adhere to certain beliefs or practices. At Wheaton, these requirements are laid out in its Statement of Faith (which lists doctrines that must be affirmed) and the Community Covenant (which lists both beliefs and behaviors). Failure to affirm the college’s doctrinal statement is cause for termination.

READ: Larycia Hawkins ‘flabbergasted’ by Wheaton’s move to fire her

So, let’s say a college believes it has cause to fire a professor—then what?

There must be due process. There should be an established process that protects the professor and the college, a process that reaches the correct, fair conclusion. There are professional norms for this process, and Wheaton College’s written policies are generally in line with these guidelines (the notable exception is that Wheaton limits counsel to someone who is not a lawyer; this means the professor cannot pick the person they believe can best assist them in a hearing with legal implications).

The problem for Wheaton College is that, in this case, it appears to be deviating from both the letter and spirit of due process in significant ways.

Here are six questions that faculty, students, and the rest of us should be asking about the college’s actions.

Campus tour at Wheaton College in June 2014. Photo by Jona Park via Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/jonapark/14320480457/

Campus tour at Wheaton College in June 2014. Photo by Jona Park via Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/jonapark/14320480457/

1. Is the college circumventing the termination policy?

Wheaton’s process for terminating a tenured professor is simple, but it’s not clear whether it is truly being followed.

There is a Provost who serves as the chief academic officer. One of the Provost’s responsibilities is to implement policies on tenure, discipline and dismissal. When a tenured faculty member violates a requirement for maintaining tenure, the Provost can recommend termination.

The recommendation moves to the Faculty Personnel Committee (FPC), which is a nine member committee elected by the faculty. The FPC conducts its own hearing and makes its own recommendation.

The president of the college will then consider both the Provost and FPC recommendations in making his own recommendation to the Board of Trustees, which makes the decision.

Think of it as the provost acting as the prosecutor, the FPC as the trial, and the president and board acting as the judge and jury.

The process becomes a farce if the president or board have meddled in the investigation or charges. They can’t act as objective judges if they in any way assisted in developing the charges against Hawkins.

There are two reasons to suspect that the process is tainted. According to the timeline of events, Hawkin’s participation in the investigation stopped December 19. Then, over the next two weeks the provost wrote a forty-page document giving detailed charges and evidence. I find it unlikely that the provost, facing no deadline, single-handedly put together such an extensive recommendation over the Christmas holiday. Maybe provost Stan Jones has the energy and drive to do that, but I would have needed more time.

READ Wheaton College suspension of prof for ‘same God’ comment disgraceful

More importantly, The events of the past month suggest that the college administrators and board were acting as if they had the authority to deny tenure. The college was negotiating with Hawkins as if they have unchecked authority to remove her tenure. They offered to keep her teaching for two years but without tenure. This is the very thing they did not have right to do at that point, because they had not followed the written procedure. Only after Hawkins turned down their offer did they begin the written process of removing her tenure. This process begins with them and ends with them. Haven’t the judges already made a public statement on their opinion, without having heard anyone else’s evidence? Put simply: is this a sham?

The FPC should question whether the president, the board of trustees, or the college’s attorney’s were involved in 1) the provost’s decision to recommend termination or 2) the writing of the recommendation.

2. Is the college shifting the burden of proof?

The provost’s recommendation to terminate-for-cause is not public (indeed, the college has ordered Hawkins not to provide a copy). In Hawkins’ press conference, however, she read a portion of the accusations made against her. According to Hawkins, the charges from the Provost read,

First, Dr. Hawkins has failed to provide reasonable assurances that her personal theological beliefs are in line with the Statement of Faith and the College’s theological positions.”

The Provost then lists a series of statements that “are among those of significant concern.” These include her statements about Christians and Muslims worshiping the same God.

This statement, while detailed, is unclear about what Hawkins did wrong. Read the statement again. What did Hawkins do? Is Wheaton College accusing her of not affirming the Statement of Faith? No. She is accused of not providing evidence that convinces the college that she still believes in both the Statement of Faith and “the College’s theological positions.”

Termination with cause places the burden of proof on the college, not the professor. It’s the college that must provide evidence that Hawkins is lying when she affirms the Statement of Faith, not Hawkins that must provide evidence to the contrary. Hawkins can’t defend herself against the college’s “concerns.” She made statements. The college is concerned. But that doesn’t mean she is denying the Statement of Faith.

This is a critical point. If the standard is that a tenured professor must be able to convince the college that he/she truly believes in a doctrine, then the professor is unreasonably at the mercy of the college.

Hawkins (and every professor, trustee, and administrator at Wheaton) must sign a document each year stating that she affirms the statement of faith. She went through a long tenure review process in which the veracity of her beliefs was tested. She is not required to prove that she’s telling the truth.

Wheaton College campus sign. Photo by Stevan Sheets via Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/stevan/85832975/

Wheaton College campus sign. Photo by Stevan Sheets via Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/stevan/85832975/

The burden of proof is a major issue in tenure. When a professor is seeking tenure, the burden is on the professor. A college can use it’s own judgment on whether tenure qualifications were met. For example, a college like Wheaton may deny someone tenure because the professor has not shown through words and deeds a full commitment to the college’s faith. Tenure reverses the burden of proof. The college, by granting tenure, has accepted the professor’s affirmation. It is now up to the college to demonstrate that the professor’s statements lack veracity.

Has Hawkins “failed to provide reasonable assurances” of her faith? It’s irrelevant to tenure. The real question is whether the college can prove that Hawkins is lying when she says she affirms the Statement of Faith.

3. Is the college adding new, unwritten faith requirements?

The college isn’t limiting its claim to the Statement of Faith. It invokes “the College’s theological positions.” It is unclear what these positions are, where they’re written, and, most importantly, how they are relevant to termination as they are not included in the list of reasons a tenured professor may be terminated at Wheaton.

The college has the right to make theological statements. It may even require them of tenured professors. At this time, however, the only faith requirements for tenured professors are laid out in the Statement of Faith and Community Covenant.

4. Are previous investigations going to be held against her? 

According to public reports, Hawkins has been investigated three times prior to last month’s events. She was questioned after writing an academic paper that drew from black liberation theology, after being tagged in a Facebook picture from a party the same day as Chicago’s Pride Parade, and after making suggestions on the college’s curriculum related to diversity and sexuality.

In each case, the college made its investigation, found that Hawkins affirmed the Statement of Faith, and welcomed her to continue teaching without interruption or change in status. In other words, she did nothing wrong.

As the current investigation moves forward, the provost, faculty, and college should not unearth these accusations or revise history to make them evidence of wrongdoing.

There is not a pattern of violations; it is actually a pattern of innocence. The college has three occasions investigated Hawkins and each time has determined that she upholds the Statement of Faith. Unless the college wants to admit that it was delinquent in its own investigations (not a smart move during another investigation), it should leave the past in the past.

READ: What the Larycia Hawkins’ case means for evangelical colleges

The previous investigations also reveal a pattern of unequal attention to Hawkins and of unsubstantiated claims of misconduct. Wheaton professor Noah Toly (a white male) recently wrote that, like Hawkins, he too has drawn from black liberation theology—in a chapel message to the entire college community. Unlike Hawkins, however, Toly was given freedom to do so without an investigation.

The previous investigations (and the resulting findings) should raise the question of why Hawkins is being targeted differently. The provost has a responsibility to investigate claims of misconduct. But why are these claims more likely to be made against Hawkins and not against other faculty? The series of investigations is not necessarily evidence of wrongdoing but may be evidence that Hawkins is being targeted unfairly.

Wheaton may even change the standards, but that that would involve a quite different process that would need to account for professors already hired and tenured. Whatever that process for changing standards is, it certainly isn’t appropriate to effectively change the standards after the fact and to announce that change to the rest of the college putting a faculty member on administrative leave, by suspending them, or by initiating termination proceedings.

5. Is the college treating Hawkins differently than other members of the college community?

The college has publicly admitted that other faculty at Wheaton have made similar statements to Hawkin’s “same God” comments. The college states that it “requested clarification” from these faculty.

Screenshot of post at BareNakedIslam.com.

Screenshot of post at BareNakedIslam.com.

“In those instances, the individuals rapidly and emphatically explained their opinions and affirmed their full consistency with the theological identity of Wheaton College,” the college said in a December statement.

TIME reported on the details of two of these cases. In one case, psychology professor Michael Mangis wrote a comment on Hawkins’ facebook post: “If you get any grief at work give me a heads-up because I’ll be leading my spring psychology of religion class in Muslim prayers.”

Provost Stan Jones emailed Mangis about his post.

“I cannot tell you what a disaster this brief comment from you on Facebook is shaping up to be,” Jones wrote. “Larycia Hawkins also meant something similarly innocuous, but her theological comments are being taken up as an endorsement of Islam and a clear and emphatic statement that Islam and Christianity are approximately the same.”

Jones then coached Mangis on what to say to clear up the matter. No further action was taken.

In another incident, English professor Tiffany Eberle Kriner published a letter to a local Islamic center. She wrote in the letter of their “shared love of the one God.” Jones worked with Kriner, too, on what language needed to be used to clarify her position.

Wheaton told TIME that Mangis and Kriner apologized, expressed regret, and worked with the provost on clarifying statements. Hawkins, according to Wheaton, did not. 

Of course, one reason Hawkins may not have apologized is that it is not against the rules for a tenured professor to make a public statement; she is not required to apologize for causing a controversy. Statements are evidence to show that a professor does not affirm the Statement of Faith.

Mangis and Kriner are not the only members of the Wheaton community who have made statements similar to Hawkins. Hawkins’ explanation to the college for her “same God” comment are very similar to those made by Timothy George in his Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad?. George is a life advisor to the Wheaton board of trustees, and as such, George must affirm the Wheaton Statement of Faith. Hawkins is going to lose her job for her statement. George, in contrast, has served the college at the highest levels despite his. 

There is also a question of other faculty who make statements that appear to directly contradict the Statement of Faith without censure. For example, the Statement of Faith includes the following:

WE BELIEVE that God directly created Adam and Eve, the historical parents of the entire human race; and that they were created in His own image, distinct from all other living creatures, and in a state of original righteousness.

Last year, Wheaton professor John Walton published a book on the Bible and origins of humanity, and he has made public statements on the same topic. He claims that neither theology nor the text of Genesis demands that Adam and Eve were were “the first two humans, who were alone in the world and direct progenitors of the entire human race.” He further believes that science gives evidence against such claims. While death was a specific punishment for Adam and Eve, they did not bring physical death into the world; other humans existed at the time of Adam and Eve and death was part of the natural order, according to Walton.

To be clear: Wheaton may find Walton’s beliefs in line with its statement on Adam and Eve. My point is that the evidence against Walton is much stronger than against Hawkins. His work directly addresses part of the Statement of Faith and could be read as disbelief in the existence of “our first parents” who brought forth mortality as a consequence of their sin. Nothing Hawkins has said or done comes close to the evidence that could be brought against Walton.

6. Why is Hawkins still on administrative leave?

Wheaton College suspended Hawkins while conducting its investigation. The college explained that it did so “in order to give more time to explore significant questions regarding the theological implications of [Hawkins’] recent public statements.”

Suspension did not give anyone more time, but it did go against professional norms. The American Association of University Professors has a long-held policy on suspension:

Suspension of the faculty member during the proceedings is justified only if immediate harm to the faculty member or others is threatened by the faculty member’s continuance.”

As I’ve written previously, the only other recent case of suspension at Wheaton College was when a professor was arrested for child pornography charges. This was an appropriate action, particularly given that the professor worked in the area of child spirituality. Removing him from his position was necessary to protect students and the community.

Hawkins’s affirmation of religious solidarity with Muslims does not constitute a danger to students. Wheaton proved that it didn’t consider her a threat when it offered to bring her back to the classroom on the condition that she relinquish tenure. She refused; so, Wheaton kept her on leave. The only threat, apparently, is to have a professor in the classroom who insists on due process.

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  • I found the information on the creation beliefs relevant to the faith statements and worthy of follow-up. I also think some prior published views by Stanton Jones reveal his concern about “core” beliefs- maybe they are more to the point in her case. I also wonder about the social context. My thoughts http://geoffwsutton.blogspot.com/2016/01/psychology-and-christianity-at-wheaton.html

  • Naksuthin

    Wheaton College claims that Professor Larycia Alaine Hawkins is being discipline solely for her statement that “As Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”
    That statement says the College, violates their “statement of faith” that the God of Christianity and Islam are NOT the same.

    Yet, In March 2011 administrators at Wheaton College INVITED Yale theologian Miroslav Volf to address students and faculty of Wheaton college on that SAME topic after the theologian made a similar claim in his book Allah:A Christian Response.


    and then POSTED the “heretical” speech on the Wheaton College youtube channel for the ENTIRE world to hear why “Muslims and Christians worship the same God”

    Does that sound like the actions of a College that claims to be offended by Professor Hawkins private remarks , after school on her own facebook page??

  • So which God is the TRUE GOD? What a silly waste of time.
    Close Wheaton. Such ‘education’ demeans humanity:

    “During almost fifteen centuries…Christianity has been on trial. What has been its fruits?….in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry, and persecution.”
    – James Madison

    “Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind
    and unfits it for every noble enterprise.”
    – James Madison

    letter to Wm. Bradford, April 1, 1774

    “The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries.”
    – James Madison

    1803 letter objecting use of gov. land for churches

    Religion is a public nuisance. Let it be abandoned.
    This debate at Wheaton is a national embarrassment to real educators.

  • Shawnie5

    Madison’s quote, altered by you, was that the “legal establishment of Christianity” has been on trial for 15 centuries. In his assessment of THAT, I heartily agree with him. However, this particular situation has nothing to do with legal establishment of religion or with any kind of “religious bondage.” Nobody who doesn’t like Wheaton’s policies is obligated to work or attend there.

  • @Shawnie:

    Wheaton’s argument with this professor reveals the nonsense at the heart of religious “studies” – which God is the true god? What a pointless waste of time.

    Madison’s assessment of the folly of Religion is exactly the point. Life is too short and education too important to be squandered on such mind numbing nothings.
    Further, my (slight) truncations of any quote – biblical or otherwise – is to accommodate the RNS posting limit of characters available – if you want the entire quote you are free to look it up. As you did.

  • Ruth Reitmeier

    The answers to questions 1-5 are yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. The answer to question 6: The power brokers at Wheaton want her terminated. They needed time to build their case, so they put her on leave. Even if thousands of Muslims converted to Christ because of the love and testimony of Dr. Hawkins, this would not change Wheaton’s position. She is regarded as an outsider and therefore untrustworthy and dangerous to the institution. Thanks for elucidating the issues related to tenure and process. Sharing your post on my wall today.

  • Excellent piece, which I came across shortly after posting my own take. Link here if you’re interested. (Or even if you’re not.)

  • Shawnie5

    “Further, my (slight) truncations of any quote – biblical or otherwise is to accommodate the RNS posting limit of characters available.” Hogwash, Max. There is no one here more dishonest in their assertions and quotations than you are, and it is quite deliberate — aimed at the ignorant who believe anything that appeals to them and have neither the ability nor the inclination to search out the truth.

  • George Nixon Shuler

    Also, as an African-American female she has less inertia when it comes to being pushed around, so they want to make an example out of her in order to enforce the political correctness they want.

  • Melissa Craig

    Most Christian colleges invite speakers or authors to speak who do not agree with their core beliefs. Its part of allowing all sides of an argument to be heard. Your comment is inflammatory. A guest speaker is very different than a tenured professor. If Dr. Hawkins has indeed been treated differently, under similar circumstances than other professors, then the college needs to apologize and start over. I understand that perhaps, Dr. Hawkins was trying to bolster her case by quoting Pope Francis. However, a Christian does not need to cite a “religious test” in order stand in solidarity with the oppressed. The Muslim people are created in God’s image, and as such, deserve all and any Christian support. No other reason is needed.

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  • Larry

    By all means pretend that the quote was taken out of context and misconstrued. Better yet, try to demonstrate it is so. Maybe include the entire quotes or where to find them.

    The point still stands. There are few academic pursuits more wasteful of time and energy than religious studies. Short of basic descriptions of the beliefs of various faiths, it becomes a mess by nature.

    Generally one is either making up phony apologetics or riling up those with an inflated sense of sectarian allegiance.

    Anyone taking Prof Hawkins’s remarks beyond a mere show of ecumenialism, attempted bridge building and polite respect with Islam, is just getting themselves in a tizzy for its own sake. No more a serious academic discussion than debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

  • Shawnie5

    “No more a serious academic discussion than debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.” Feel free use your time otherwise, of course.

  • Shawnie5

    “Maybe include the entire quotes or where to find them.” And here is Exhibit A of the class of persons I described at the end of my 1:46 post.

    Always nice to have volunteers.

  • Eric

    Best article I’ve read on this debacle, not least for the paragraph on tenure and burden of proof. There are two things, I didn’t see mentioned, though. The theological statement that Hawkins submitted to the Provost and the possible role of racial bias on the part of Wheaton’ administration.

    Unless I’m mistaken, the Provost had no qualms with her statement, but said the Trustees wanted more proof. Is that correct?

    If Magnis and Kriner were not disciplined, but Hawkins was, whence the discrepancy? It is difficult to overlook the fact that she is an African-American and they are not.

  • Ruth

    Take a look at this post from a social psychology professor.

    I think Dr. Hawkins has been very careful to avoid charges of racism, but it certainly is the elephant in the room. Why such differential treatment? The article in Time Magazine highlighted several other faculty who were “given a pass.”

    The trustees didn’t ask for more proof. They said she couldn’t return to the classroom unless they revoked tenure and “continued the conversation” for two more years. This is not acting in good faith. It is saying she is in trouble and on probation.

  • @Shawnie the Honest:

    “…the ignorant who believe anything….have neither the ability nor the inclination to search out the truth.”

    Please elaborate on your honest inclination to search out this story before you preached it as the truth!

    “And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth shook and the rocks were split. The tombs were opened, and many bodies of Holy men and women who had died were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many.…” (Matthew 27:51)

    Putting Zombies “into context” only makes you look more dishonest.

    It is just as dishonest to put your God’s RAPE, GENOCIDE, TORTURE AND SLAVERY into ‘context’ and it looks just as foolish!

  • Chris

    Just wanted to respond to the two people in this sub-field who said that “religious studies is a waste of time.” There are a lot of people (like me!) doing RS from a secular perspective… I actually argue that it’s one of the most important disciplines in today’s world. Pretty difficult to understand the middle east, Russia, oh and America 😉 without an understanding of religion. However, these places that make people ‘believe’ certain things are an abomination to intelligence.. I agree with you on that one. Wheaton shouldn’t be accredited if it can’t give its professors freedom to teach and say what they need to say,

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  • Shawnie5

    Excellent. I hope you also recommended revoking the accreditation of Marquette, UCLA, and UNC-Wilmington for firing/suspending/passing over conservative professors for “saying what they needed to say.”

  • Shawnie5

    You’ve been educated at length on all those topics before, Max, and continue to present them like nothing ever happened. It is unfortunate to have wasted time spoon-feeding someone whose deliberate intention is to learn nothing, but you can only rake up the veggies off the baby’s chin so many times.

    That’s why I prefer evangelical Patheos these days. There is a lot more interest in actual exchange of information and viewpoints there — or perhaps the mods do a better job of culling spam.

  • Larry

    Its amazing that “saying what needs to be said” from conservative types invariably comes down to attacking others through some objectively offensive bigotry-charged language. Go figure.

  • @Shawnie:

    “actual exchange of information…”

    You have consistently avoided giving me any information.
    Why do you believe in Zombies?
    Where is the evidence which proves Jesus was connected to a God?

    All you offer me is authoritarian claims.

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  • @Chris,

    “Religion…is one of the most important disciplines in today’s world”

    I think all public schools should teach classes in Comparative Religions as Cultural Mythology.

    Wheaton’s problem is that it lies. It insists these myths ARE REAL and MUST BE interpreted as absolutely true!
    It would be like instructing children that the THREE LITTLE PIGS actually happened!

    An astonishing waste of a human mind!

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